Archive for category Geothermal
Last June I blogged about our installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system in our house. (The link is to one of the final blogs, go earlier in the week to see the process). Now seven months later it’s time for an update.
It is winter. You can’t tell by looking out the window because we are barren of snow. That is exceedingly rare for December 30th and has destroyed my plans to spend the week skiing with the boys here in town. We did get a two inch snowfall on December 23rd that melted on December 26th. Maine without a white Christmas would have been an abomination!
So far the geothermal system gets a mixed review. It does a quick, reasonably silent and comfortable job heating and cooling. It’s nice that air doesn’t blast out of the ducts; it’s even hard to tell when the system is running. As expected, there isn’t a lot of heat being pushed to the basement, so while we keep the upstairs at a comfortable 68 when we’re around, the basement is usually a good five or six degrees cooler. We do have a space heater we use sparingly (and we could turn on the oil heat if we really wanted the basement toasty).
We don’t seem to be saving as much money as we hoped to. We haven’t seen any help from our desuperheater, designed to provide hot water. I expected better from something called a ‘desuperheater.’ It is supposed to augment our boiler, which now is used only for hot water and back up heat. The goal was to burn 15% of the oil we used to, but it’s more like 30% – which is pretty much what hot water costs anyway! The boiler acts as if the desuperheater isn’t there.
I plan to increase the temperature of the water sent from the geothermal unit to the hot water supply. I originally set it to 125 instead of 150 out of fear that water too hot would burn the kids. I think the water sent would mix with cooler water so I’ll experiment with that. If the kids start suffering 2nd degree burns I’ll turn the temperature back down.
The other issue is electricity. Unfortunately our electric bills haven’t been consistent. Despite the new use of ‘smart meters,’ a device which sends information on usage to the company so CMP can lay off meter readers, we seem to be getting a lot of estimated bills or wild fluctuations from month to month.
The total cost of the system was nearly $40,000, though we do get a third of it back in tax credits (thanks, Uncle Sam!), making the final cost about $28,000. To pay it back in 10 years we’d need a savings of $2800 a year (I didn’t even need a calculator for that one!). Last year we paid $4500 for heating oil. This year we’re likely going to pay about $1200. That puts us at a savings of $3300 before the electric bill. The electric bill used to be about $120 a month. For people outside Maine that sounds like a lot, but we have expensive electricity in Maine — even the Governor complains about that!
In summer the cooling didn’t increase the cost much, but last month’s bill spiked. If that continues (one month is hard to go by with electric bills, you have to average them out), we could be looking at $500 more for the three coldest months, and probably about $700 more for the rest of the year. Even that is suspect because we had two dehumidifiers pumping water out of the year non-stop this summer since my wife got concerned that there is too much mold in the basement air. I thought it added character to the atmosphere but her sinuses disagreed.
If those figures are accurate that would mean the additional electricity would cost about $1200, or $100 a month on average. That would make our savings $2100 for the year. If we can’t improve on that it will take the system as much as 15 years to pay for itself.
So far the system has only malfunctioned once, and Jeff Gagnon Heating and Plumbing was there early the next day to fix what was a minor problem (free of charge, of course, as it is under warranty). I gotta love Maine — we weren’t able to be home when they could stop by, so we just left the house unlocked. That’s typical here. During that time it was nice to have oil heat back up. We also had a 13 hour power outage in mid-autumn which also required us to use oil. We have a generator, but it’s not powerful enough to start the geothermal system. The electrician who worked on the installation just laughed heartily when I pointed to my generator and asked if it would be enough to keep the geothermal going.
Despite that, I still do not regret installing the system. My wife – a CPA much more in tune with money issues than a dreamy academic like me – isn’t so sure. But if oil prices sky rocket, the payback time could decrease quickly. Looking at headlines from Iran, Syria, and the Mideast I find it a bit comforting not to be relying completely on oil.
I also really like having air conditioning in the summer. You don’t need it in Maine, but if you’re going to entertain guests, cook indoors, or be comfortable on those hot weeks (and we seem to be getting more of them), it is very pleasant. We couldn’t have had central air without duct work being done anyway, and that was a chunk of the cost. We would never have gotten central air for that reason and a few window units would have been a pain. There is real value to having a cooling system!
Finally, I’m not yet convinced about the cost. I need more data about the cost of electricity over a full year, and I hope to get the desuperheater to provide more relief heating water.
So the unit works well, we get good heat, and I’m happy with it. We don’t seem to be saving as much as we hoped for, and the basement stays chillier than the upstairs. Nonetheless seven months in I’m still glad we did this! My wife tells me that even if I get a major midlife crisis I’d better be happy with my Ford Fusion for at least another decade — this was my expensive toy of choice. I can live with that!
Today’s blog entry is about nothing particular, just some snippets and thoughts. First, I love the above picture making the rounds on facebook. The North Americans (Canadian Prime Minister Harper and President Obama) ignore or avert their eyes from the woman bending down to get some fallen documents, while Berlusconi and especially Sarkozy unabashedly enjoy the view.
I showed my class this after finishing a power point. I also added this joke on cultural differences: The difference between heaven and hell: in heaven the Italians are the cooks, the French are the lovers, the Germans are the mechanics, the Swiss are the administrators and the British are the police. In hell the Italians are the administrators, the French are the mechanics, the British are the cooks, the Swiss are the lovers and the Germans are the police.
Another oft shared facebook graphic. Unfortunately they don’t cite the source of the stats, but I’ve encountered these kind of numbers before so I am convinced they are accurate:
It occurs to me that what Occupy Wall Street has done is bring the real and undeniable shift of relative wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest Americans and has made it mainstream and well known. In the past most Americans assumed wealth was more evenly distributed then it is, that class mobility was greater than it really is, and that the wealthy got to where they are by working hard and having good ideas.
It was probably true before the massive de-regulation starting in the 80s; wealth and income equality were greatest in the mid-seventies, and there was a thriving middle class. De-regulation and lower tax rates are not the cause of the swing — globalization’s dynamic contributed to it as well. But the public pretty much went on believing things were cool as consumerism raged and people simply stopped saving and went into debt to maintain their lifestyles.
Now people are waking up to what’s happened, and recognize that the ideal of hard work and initiative being the key to success is losing validity. Even people not necessarily sympathetic to OWS are starting to absorb the data and recognize there is a problem. We live in interesting times.
In another front, so far our geothermal system is doing well. We enjoyed AC all summer for the first time (Maine doesn’t need air conditioning, but it’s nice to have!), and it’s been effective and efficient. The one problem is that it hasn’t done much to heat our water, meaning the boiler still turns on a lot for that. That’s not a huge expense, but we want to figure out if we can use the hot water generated here to better connect to our domestic hot water supply. The cost of running this system seems to be about $30 a month, though the coldest summer months have yet to arrive (though we were running dehumidifiers in the basement in the summer so they may have been part of the cost increase).
And it looks like this May I’ll lead a travel course to Germany!
The course will focus on East and West Germany 20 years after unification — how has the country changed, what differences remain — likely with a week based in Munich and a week in East Berlin. It won’t be a large class like the Italy trips in recent years have been, and I’ll be the only faculty member (rather than the team of four for Italy). But it’s in my area of specialty, and we’ll get a chance for some day trips to places like the Alps, Ludwig’s castles, Dachau, perhaps Weimar and Buchenwald, Wittenberg where Luther started the reformation, and Leipzig where the protests in the East really took off. Berlin is always an amazing city to visit.
Finally, kudos to all the Mallett school families (K-3) who attended and participated in the Harvest dinner Wednesday. I baked some European brown bread and buttery pan rolls, but the variety and quality of the food was unbelievable! Turkey, potatoes, pasta, salads, deserts…and despite well over 100 people in attendance, we didn’t run out of food! Being involved in the PTA this year (I’m chair of the fundraising committee) is fun, especially since we have a new school — the old 80 year Mallett closed and the new one opened this fall.
The school is superb — big classrooms, nice common areas, a good library and modern equipment. It was built beside where the old one stood so construction could be underway even while the kids were still attending the old one. That made last year a bit messy in terms of drop offs, pick ups, noise and the like. But it was worth it! Having kids in third grade and Kindergarten there, it’s fun to be active in that community!
So no particular theme today, just some end of the week odds and ends!
Today was an unusually warm and humid day for Maine in June — upper eighties by late afternoon. That made it the perfect day to see how well the A/C function on the newly installed and operating system functions. Unfortunately for the workers they had to work in the heat of the day (finishing in the attic at about 11:00, as the temperature hit 120 there) and couldn’t enjoy the cool air until right before they left.
It was still an intense work day for them. Any retrofit requires working around the idiosyncrasies of a house not built for geothermal. Still, they answered all my questions and cleaned up before the left. One issue is the desuperheater, which sends very hot water directly to the hot water tank when the unit is running. It can send it at either 125 or 150, though 150 is above the state regulation. I can set it there, but the installer couldn’t.
The problem is our water was set at 135, meaning that the boiler would still kick on and we’d save little in summer, even when theoretically we should be getting a lot of “free” hot water. If I set it for 150 that could overcome that, but then there’s danger of severe burns if the kids got under it at its hottest. I lowered the temperature to about 115 instead, so hopefully that’ll help. The most efficient way to use the desuperheater is with an electric hot water heater. In summer it would hardly ever go on, and only sometimes in winter. If we really want to save we could go that route.
While he was explaining this there was some commotion and cold white “smoke” was coming out of the heat exchange pump. “I’m stopping it with my hand,” one guy said. “Move it, you’ll get frostbite,” another responded. The leader of the crew started to work on it and got everything under control. Other than that, things went very well!
The pump draws in water from the well, currently about 52 degrees, and takes heat from the house and puts it in the water. The water is then sent back to the well about five or six degrees warmer. In essence it refrigerates our house by removing heat rather than injecting cool air — though it feels like the latter as cool air comes from the vents. In the winter it’s reversed, heat is taken from the water and colder water is sent back to the well (warming up from the earth’s heat as it makes its way back.)
It’s a split level system so heat is sent up from the basement to the attic for distribution. There are 15 vents upstairs and three downstairs. Basements stay around 50 anyway, so it doesn’t take as much heat — but we were limited by the inability to do much duct work in the basement.
The other bit of maintenance is to replace the upstairs filteres every three months. There are two return vents that suck air out assuring a good flow of air through the house, keeping humidity down as well. To protect both our air and the duct work, it’s important to filter this. It’s possible to buy filters you can clean and reuse, though it’s not expensive to just replace them every three months — and our thermostat will remind us when it’s time to replace them.
One of the beauties of this form of air conditioning is that it isn’t like the rush of cold air that comes from most central AC systems. The air flows gently, meaning that the temperature lowers slowly (they measured air coming out was at about 59 degrees, while the return air at that time was at 75). You don’t have cold air blowing on you, you have to reach up to feel near the vent to tell — but it is effective, the house cooled from 78 to 70 within an hour.
The system is not loud at all. The heat exchange pump does make noise, but it’s less than what the boiler produces. The fan in the attic is hardly noticeable. At least on day one, using the “Cool” mode, it works easily and quietly. The thermostat is easy to operate. It can be programmed, and you work from either “cool” or “heat” mode (there is an automatic, but that can switch back and forth and burn a lot of electricity). We choose to have only one zone to save money, we didn’t see the point of multiple zones, especially if you can dampen the vents individually.
Although this will end my “daily” blogging about the project, I will post periodically about performance and cost — I’ll probably put together a page of posts like I did for the Italy trip. It’s too early to say if the investment was worth it, or if the system will work as promised. Yet I was very happy with both Jeff Gagnon Heating and Air Conditioning, and Goodwin Well and Water. They communicated clearly, did what they said they’d do, were professional, and clearly understood their task (they’re the most experienced at this in the region). RDM Electric (Ryan Morgan) also did a great job creatively dealing with the electrical needs of the system.
Wow. I started asking about geothermal possibilities way back in 2007, playing with ideas, but all the time thinking the high initial price tag would keep this theoretical. At UMF they are now drilling 80 wells for a massive conversion to geothermal for a good chunk of the campus. For the sake of the economy I hope oil prices drop, but it’s nice not having to worry as much about them in planning next winter’s budget!
At one point this morning the electrician’s truck, two Goodwin Well trucks, two Jeff Gagnon heating and AC trucks, a pick up truck from the excavators and a large truck hauling the excavation equipment were all in front of our house. I had taken the kids to school and had to park up the road a bit — today the construction was in earnest. Today our yard got torn up, today the house smelled like a construction site, today we got back on well water and are very close to being complete. Ironically, for the first evening in a week, there are no trucks parked outside the house overnight.
Inside the house duct work was all but completed today — maybe one or two vents still need to be hooked up. The return vents were set (which apparently meant having to work around some tricky wiring). The electrician also had to be creative — there wasn’t a lot of space, so they had to work around some obstacles.
Outside the excavation work had one important obstacle — the trench we built in 2009! The path from the well head to the house goes through the trench (which has a pipe going around 3/4 of the house). It’s not in an important part — it’s near the end on the front side of the house, which had fewer drainage problems. Still, we wanted to make sure that stayed in tact. I talked to the excavators, and they found the pipe and dug around it.
The purpose of the excavation, of course, was to connect the well (and new well pump) to the house. That took most of the day, but by 5:00 the Goodwin folks had us back on well water, and had connected a brand new pump to a new tank and the heat exchange pump (which is not yet functional). That means we have a five year old Gould’s pump and a large tank that are still in good shape but not being used. Maybe we can sell them on E-Bay.
The house is a mess. Construction workers don’t take off shoes, of course, and go in and out of the house often. Add some mud because water was involved with the well, and then add some smoke from cutting pipe. It was a busy, hectic day. Yet the project is on schedule and maybe tomorrow I’ll report that we’re up and running! Stay tuned!
The crew from Jeff Gagnon Heating and Air Conditioning were here shortly after 6:30 AM Tuesday and by 10:30 the attic was getting too hot for them to continue. They then worked on the set up down stairs, cutting holes for the vents and getting things ready.
We now can see where our fourteen air vents upstairs (and two return vents) will be located, as well as the four down stairs. The closet in Ryan’s room has a slightly bigger opening because it will also pipe up the heat to the attic for distribution. Nothing dramatic today — holes cut in the ceiling, work continuing.
When we got this house four years ago, I didn’t imagine how much work we’d put into it. A new drainage system in 2009, combined with clearing out some of the back woods for a play area for the kids. It was a massive undertaking. More pictures here.
Tomorrow (Wednesday) should be a big day. Goodwin’s is going to excavate and hook up the well to the house, the electrician is going to get everything wired properly and while they may need to return Thursday to finish up, things are on schedule. I’m also setting up to chart the costs (electricity, oil used, etc) of energy use this year compared to last year, to see what this actually will save over time. In that sense it’s an experiment, I’m not really sure what the return will be (and will post updates in my blog). The house is a mess of course, ladders, plastic covering, and dust everywhere. Still, the work has been relatively unobtrusive and they’ve been efficient and friendly. Stay tuned!
The installers of the geothermal system, Jeff Gagnon heating, arrived at about 10:00 Monday, later than expected because they had trouble locating our residence. As they arrived the well rig had already been removed, and Goodwin’s will come back Wednesday to test the water and hook everything up — and we’ll be back on our well water. After a walk through to determine where the ducts would be and how they could reach the basement through some of the closets, they got started.
The equipment actually turning the heat into forced air is going to be located in the attic and that presented two problems. First, the hole for the attic is small, and they ultimately couldn’t get the unit (which in theory had 3/16″ clearance) through. They had to take the unit apart and reassemble it in the attic. They have a crew of four people doing the work, and they were friendly and professional — just like their boss.
Even though Maine has pleasant temperatures — today in the seventies — Maine attics do not. It was extremely hot up there, so by 11:30 after they’d finished the arduous task of getting the equipment up there they needed, they decided not to work up there the rest of the day. Instead they’d prep the materials for the rest of the house, put some holes through the floor where pipes would go, and then arrive Tuesday at 6:30 AM so they could get work done before the day gets too hot.
Today they located places in three closets where they’ll put pipes running to the attic. The largest will take heat directly up to the attic so it can be dispersed through the house. The others will try to give as much heat as possible to the basement, though we will at times have to augment that with our oil heater or electric space heaters. We may use the later more often since the basement is one zone, and most often in winter we’ll just use part of it. Time will tell. The oil burner will still be used for water, though a desuperheater will give us plenty of hot water in summer, and be pretty efficient in winter. It’ll be very interesting to track oil usage this year!
I had to make some decisions — where should some vents go, can they place the heat exchange pump a more convenient place than originally thought. Mostly I just deferred to their judgment — they are the experts. They were very good at explaining what they were doing and why.
The garage now holds the heat exchange pump, duct work, and the 18 vents (plus two return vents) that will be installed over the next two days. So though not a lot was done today, I have a clearer picture of what to expect, and it’s pretty exciting.
For those who read this blog for my reactions to politics and world affairs, I apologize that I’ve sort of turned my attention away from all that thanks to Italy and now this home project. During the school year I have to keep up on all the international stuff because it’s part of my courses (and yes, I do find this to be a fascinating world!) And at the end of this month I’ll be teaching summer courses so I’ll re-engage!
Monday Jeff Gagnon heating will be here to start installation of the geothermal heat exchange pumps and everything else. So Sunday we had to empty some closets (they’ll send pipes through closets to get to the basement) and move the washer and drier so they can have access to the attic. We also set up plastic on the floor, covered some furniture and tried to get the house ready for a major project.
And earlier Sunday we had to clear sticks and weeds from the portion of our back woods that we cleared out back in 2009. One joy of living in Maine is to have the boys be able to grow up in the woods.
We did have a nice hike and picnic this morning, with the kids swimming in extra cold water at Belgrade Lakes. They got their shorts soaked because we hadn’t expected them to swim after the hike and didn’t even bring towels. But the rest of the day was busy with work.
Four hours of yard work and a few hours getting prepared for the heating people (the well people will be here too testing — they do the excavating and well hook up on Wednesday) We’re not sure how long the heating folk will take, I think he said he thought they’d be done by Friday.
But at least we got to clear out some old socks and clean the floor behind the washer. Now I just have to get the trash and recycling ready for tomorrow the work will be done for the day!
Today our geothermal project officially got underway. Goodwin Well and Water came and started drilling our existing well to a much deeper level. Not having seen the process before, it’s fun to see how something as common as a well gets drilled. 44% of Maine residents get their water by private well, the largest percentage in the country.
80% of Mainers use fuel oil to heat their homes. That has been our source of heat too, meaning we are prone to wild fluctuations based on the price of oil. Since I consider it possible that oil could rise significantly in the future, part of the rationale for this is to protect ourselves from that expense. Geothermal runs on electricity, but uses far less energy. Moreover, natural gas is the source to power electric plants, which is cheaper and more plentiful. So far only about 1% of Mainers use geothermal in private residences, and retrofitting homes to move to geothermal can be tricky. Ours has a baseboard heating system that geothermal will not accommodate, so a big expense is setting up duct work for a forced air system.
If all goes according to plan we’ll have geothermal AC by the end of next week. We don’t have AC, and most of the summer don’t need it, but it is nice to have. So back from Italy and we jump into yet another project!
Back in late 2007 I wrote an e-mail to the staff list asking if anyone knew about geothermal options. It led to a number of exchanges and as oil surged in price in 2008, Tom Eastler, our internationally known fossil fuel geologist (who is convinced oil may get very expensive in the future) even arranged for a public talk about alternative home heating methods. The most interesting one was from a professor in Orono talking about having heat exchange pumps positioned in various places around the house — you could control them individually and it would be more efficient. Alas, that’s a tough kind of retrofit on an existing house and no one actually does that yet.
Solar works well for heating water, and passive solar systems can be efficient. Wind power can generate electricity, and the main alternative to oil here is wood. Maine is a forest and wood is plentiful — and at current prices the cost is the oil equivalent of about $1.70 a gallon. That price probably won’t change unless demand changes — and if oil remains high in cost, wood pellet stoves and ordinary wood stove usage will rise. My wife grew up having to tend a wood stove, I would rather not have to deal with buying, storing and hauling wood and besides — the tech lover in me thinks geothermal is cool! (Speaking of cool, as noted, it also gives AC!)
We mulled over the options and then the price of oil fell. The issue lost its salience, but I suspected that unless we’re in a deep permanent world recession, not only will prices rise again, but the best time to arrange this is when the oil prices are low and there isn’t a high demand for conversion. We worked it out financially (recognizing that we can cut 30% off the top with federal tax credits), and early last winter — before oil prices starting to really rise — we got our estimates. Goodwin’s well and water sent over detailed information about the well system, and Jeff Gagnon Heating, recognized as one of the top geothermal installers in Maine, explained the way the system would work and put together his estimate. It was recommended we wait until after winter to do the well work (it’s easier in so many ways!) and we’d already pre-paid oil so we tentatively agreed. The fact it would significantly reduce our carbon footprint was also an important issue for me.
The pay off time was looking to be more like 10 to 15 years, which is quite awhile. Then oil prices started rising, and the possibility of further hikes due to turmoil in the Mideast solidified our decision. We altered our tax withholdings because of the expected credit, arranged financing, and had both the well and heating people over to examine our property and step by step determine how it would be done. I didn’t get alternate bids because we decided with a new and relatively rare technology we wanted people with a very good reputation. So I did some research on who was the best for our region and went with that.
Given the tax credits, I think geothermal is a no-brainer for new construction. The cost isn’t that much more than setting up heating oil (pay back time is about three or four years), and the cost can be built into the mortgage.
So now the project begins! It may not be as interesting as my Italy blogs (and I won’t blog about it every day for two weeks, that would be geo-overkill), but it is a look at heating in the future — and regardless of global warming, I suspect home heating will be a major issue in Maine for quite some time!